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Russia ask 10 US diplomats to leave in retaliation against Washington

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(Last Updated On: April 17, 2021)

Russia on Friday asked 10 U.S. diplomats to leave the country in retaliation for Washington’s expulsion of the same number of Russian diplomats over alleged malign activity and suggested the U.S. ambassador return home for consultations, Reuters reported.

The measures, part of a broader retaliatory package, were approved by President Vladimir Putin, as a response to an array of U.S. government sanctions imposed on Moscow a day earlier, including curbs to its sovereign debt market.

Reuters reported that although Moscow responded swiftly and with measures designed to hurt U.S. interests and shrink its diplomatic footprint, it left the door open for dialogue and did not kill off the idea, proposed by President Joe Biden, of a Putin-Biden summit.

“Now is the time for the United States to demonstrate good sense and to turn its back on a confrontational course,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Otherwise an array of painful decisions for the American side will be implemented.”

It said it had options to hurt the United States economically and to shrink its diplomatic corps in Russia to just 300 people, but was holding fire for now.

Russia-U.S. ties slumped to a new post-Cold War low last month after Biden said he thought Putin was a “killer” and Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations. The envoy has still not returned almost a month later.

The Russian foreign ministry said John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, should return home for consultations too., Reuters reported.

Washington said its own sanctions were payback for Russia interfering in last year’s U.S. election, cyber hacking, bullying Ukraine and other alleged malign actions.

The Russian response on Friday was “escalatory and regrettable,” a State Department representative said by email.

“It is not in our interest to get into an escalatory cycle, but we reserve the right to respond to any Russian retaliation against the United States.”

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Israel-Gaza conflict rages on, diplomacy yet to gain traction

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Reuters
(Last Updated On: May 15, 2021)

Israel pummelled Gaza with air strikes and Palestinian militants launched rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and other cities on Saturday, with no sign yet of an end to the worst escalation in years in the region, almost a week into the conflict.

Reuters reported, US and Arab diplomats are seeking to calm the situation. Violence overnight saw militants fire about 200 rockets at cities in Israel, whose planes struck what it said were targets used by Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza.

At least 139 people, including 39 children, have been killed in Gaza since hostilities erupted on Monday, Palestinian medics said.

Israel has reported nine dead, including children.

On Saturday afternoon, al Jazeera meanwhile reported Israel had given a “warning” that it will bomb the building that houses Al Jazeera offices and other international media channels in Gaza City in one hour.

Reuters meanwhile reported that the Israeli bombardment overnight killed more than 15 Palestinians in Gaza, medics said, including a woman and four of her children who died when their house in a refugee camp was hit. Five others died, with others wounded, the medics said.

Israel’s military said about the incident that it had hit an apartment in the Beach refugee camp used by Hamas. It said details of the case were under review.

In Israel, thousands of Israelis ran for shelter. Sirens wailed repeatedly across Tel Aviv on Saturday. One rocket struck a residential building in the commercial hub’s suburb of Ramat Gan, killing one person there, medics said, Reuters reported.

In Gaza, Akram Farouq, 36, dashed out of his home with his family after a neighbour told him they had received a call from an Israeli officer warning that their building would be hit.

“We haven’t slept all night because of the explosions, and now I am out in the street with my wife and children, who are weeping and trembling,” he said.

Israel’s military said its aircraft struck rocket launch sites and apartments belonging to Hamas militants.

Regional and international diplomatic efforts have yet to show any signs of halting hostilities. Egypt, which has been leading regional efforts, sent ambulances across its border with Gaza to bring Palestinian casualties to Egyptian hospitals.

Israel’s military said on Saturday about 2,300 rockets had been fired from Gaza at Israel since Monday, with about 1,000 intercepted by missile defences and 380 falling into the Gaza Strip.

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Colonial Pipeline paid hackers nearly $5 million in ransom: Bloomberg News

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(Last Updated On: May 14, 2021)

Colonial Pipeline paid nearly $5 million to Eastern European hackers on Friday after a crippling cyberattack that shut the largest fuel pipeline network in the United States, Bloomberg News reported, citing two people familiar with the transaction.

The company paid the ransom in untraceable cryptocurrency within hours after the attack, according to the report.

Colonial Pipeline declined to comment.

Whether targets of such attacks should pay to regain control of their systems is a matter of fierce debate. Critics contend that paying ransom encourages attacks.

U.S. House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday ransom should not be paid by companies that are the victims of cyber attacks.

The hackers provided Colonial Pipeline with a decrypting tool to restore its disabled computer network after they received the payment, but the company used its own backups to help restore the system since the tool was slow, Bloomberg News reported.

After a six-day outage, the top U.S. fuel pipeline, which carries 100 million gallons per day of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, moved some of the first millions of gallons of motor fuels on Thursday.

The shutdown caused gasoline shortages and emergency declarations from Virginia to Florida, led two refineries to curb production and had airlines reshuffling some refueling operations.

The FBI earlier this week accused a shadowy criminal gang called DarkSide for the ransomware attack. The group has not directly taken credit, but on Wednesday it claimed to have breached systems at three other companies.

A terse news release posted to DarkSide’s website did not directly mention Colonial Pipeline but, under the heading “About the latest news,” it noted that “our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society”.

The White House declined to weigh in on Monday whether companies that are hacked such as Colonial Pipeline should pay ransom to their attackers, but a national security official said it may offer some advice in the future.

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Israel targets Gaza tunnels, Palestinian rocket attacks persist

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Photo credit Reuters
(Last Updated On: May 14, 2021)

Israel fired artillery and mounted extensive air strikes on Friday against a network of Palestinian militant tunnels under Gaza, amid persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The largest Israeli operation against a specific target since the conflict began included 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

Rocket barrages against southern Israel swiftly followed the 40-minute pre-dawn offensive on the fifth day of the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

A woman and her three children were killed in Gaza, health officials in the north of the enclave said, and their bodies were recovered from the rubble of their home. An elderly woman in Israel died while on her way to a shelter to shield from the rocket attacks.

Gaza’s ruling Hamas group launched the rocket attacks at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

At least 119 people have been killed in Gaza, including 31 children and 19 women, and 830 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.

The death toll in Israel stood at eight: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including two children – and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

The head of the International Criminal Court warned that individuals involved in the bloodshed may be targeted by its investigation into alleged war crimes in earlier bouts of the conflict.

In northern and eastern parts of Gaza, the sound of artillery fire and explosions echoed early on Friday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were reports of more than 200 housing units destroyed or severely damaged and hundreds of people seeking shelter in schools in northern Gaza.

Israel says it makes every effort to preserve civilian life, including warning in advance of attacks.

“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters.

“We refer to (it) as the Metro,” he said, adding that a final assessment on the outcome of the operation was pending.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas, Gaza’s most powerful Islamist militant group, must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.

U.S. President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wanted to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.

TENSIONS IN ISRAEL

The hostilities have fuelled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence continued in mixed communities overnight after street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

“They say Gaza is spiraling out of control, but what is happening here scares me more,” said Majd Abado, an Arab resident of the mixed city of Acre, where people from both communities said they were afraid to leave their homes.

Israel’s military said a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.

The Israeli military’s build-up of forces on the Gaza border has raised speculation about a possible repeat of ground invasions during the Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009. But an incursion looked unlikely, given Israel’s reluctance to risk a sharp increase in military casualties on Hamas turf.

The U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States had objected to a meeting on Friday.

Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had yet to deliver a sign of progress.

The Israeli military has put the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.

On the Israeli political front, Netanyahu’s chances to remain in power after an inconclusive March 23 election appeared to improve significantly after his main rival, centrist Yair Lapid, suffered a major setback in efforts to form a government.

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